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Fact Finding visit on the social and human development situation of people in Lanjigarh and Niyamgiri, Kalahandi &Rayagada Districts, Odisha – Interim Observations

(23-27 March, 2019)

  • Context

A fact finding was conducted by 6 members of Women against Sexual Violence and State Repression (WSS), a nationwide network of like-minded people from diverse political and social movements comprising of women’s organizations, mass organizations, civil liberty organizations, student and youth organizations, mass movements and individuals who take on issues of human rights of women and marginalised communities. The fact finding team visited Odisha’s Rayagada, Kalahandi, Bhubaneswar areas to specifically understand the issues impacting the tribal comprising of DongriaKondh, KutiaKondh, Majhi Kondh and Dalits affected by the violations and violence meted out on them to make way for mining giant Vedanta to do its business. The first phase of the fact finding has been undertaken from 23rd to 27thMarch, 2019 and the members of the team were as below:

  1. Puja, legal academic and lawyer, Patna
  2. Mamata Dash, social researcher, New Delhi
  3. Shobha R, theatre activist and researcher, Bangalore
  4. Arundathi V, cultural activist and teacher, Kodaikanal
  5. Meera Sanghamitra, environmental researcher and activist, Hyderabad
  6. Sharanya, social activist, Koraput

The team interacted with people from Lakhpadar, Dangamati and Patanpadar and surrounding villages in the Niyamgiri Hills and alsoKenduburudi, Trilochanpur, Jagannathpur, Rengopalli and Chhatarpur villages in Lanjigarh area. The team had extensive discussions with the villagers, concerned lawyers, government officials and social activists working in the region.

The need for the fact finding by WSS arose in the context of the recent arrests of leaders of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (NSS) and the 18th March violent crackdown on villagers affected by Vedanta’s Lanjigarh refinery project demanding jobs and education facilities for their children, leading to the extremely tragic deaths of two persons. The team was also concerned about the status of implementation of the historic verdict by the Supreme Court on upholding the supremacy of the Gram Sabhas in ‘land acquisition and mining matters especially with regards to Niyamgiri Hills and the adivasi and dalit communities living in the hills and surrounding areas’.

The national level WSS fact finding team will be coming up with a detailed report of the visit but this may be treated as its interim observations. The main observations are :

The major overarching observation is that the state seems to be utterly non-committal to implementation of the Supreme Court’s verdict and other laws of the land as well as non-responsive to the genuine demands of the people be it regard to consultation with the gram sabhas, provision of permanent jobs to project affected families, land based rehabilitation, quality education and health services, abetment of pollution by industries, etc. Instead the State by using repression, intimidation, violence and surveillance, is contributing to the rising tensions in the region and insecurity in the lives of some of the most marginalised and peace loving communities.

The situation for the adivasis is exacerbated by the fact that Vedanta, which prides itself as a responsible corporate, has failed the people on every front be it education, health, employment, compliance of anti-pollution laws, etc and the state machinery, including the regulatory authorities, have made no attempts to make company accountable. Instead the state has strengthened the hands of Vedanta by raising the Odisha Industrial Security Force (OISF) which has been at the centre of the current tensions in the region.

  • Setting up of permanent CRPF Camp at Trilochanpur
  1. The state government has proceeded with setting up a permanent CRPF camp at Belguda village under Trilochanpur Panchayat despite no written consent from the Gram Sabha and by forcefully evicting four adivasi families who were cultivating on that land for generations.
  2. The Trilochanpur Panchayat office has been forcibly taken over by the CRPF for temporary camping at the behest of the Sub-Collector, Block Development Officer and Civil Supply Officer with no consent from the villagers who are the rightful owners of the land.
  3. The state government seems to have taken no action against the forced eviction of the four adivasi families despite their written complaint.
  4. The elected representatives and activists of NiyamgiriSurakhya Samiti (NSS) were reportedly summoned to the Superintendent of Police’s office and told in no uncertain terms that their ‘opposition’ to setting up the CRPF camp would not be taken well by the administration and hence they must restrain from raising the issue any further.
  • Land acquisition in Kenduburudi and Jagannathpur
  1. The government has a proposal for acquiring another 50 acres from Kenduburudi andJagannathur villages for setting up the rehabilitation colony for the displaced families of Rengopalli, Kotduar and Bandhaguda villages and also a permanent CRPF camp. This is in addition to the already acquired 1000 acres from this village in 2005-2006 by using police might.
  2. The villagers are opposing this bid for fresh land acquisition in the light of the fact that they still have not been adequately rehabilitated and compensated for the earlier land acquisition and have been informed by the Tehsildar that the land belonged to the government making their claims irrelevant.
  3. The villagers are opposing the fresh bid to acquire their lands and fear that they might face repression from the police and security forces.
  • Construction of red mud pond at Rengopalli
  1. We met several women at Rengopalli who shared their reluctance to leave their ancestral lands and were kept totally in the dark about their future and the reasons for their displacement and dispossession.
  2. They also shared that they face regular health issues like burning eyes and nose, skin infections, contamination of their food and water, etc due to the dust that flies into the village from the red mud pond that has been built by Vedanta very close to the village.
  3. The women shared that on the fateful day of 18th March 2019 the men of their village had gone to the gate of Vedanta to demand two basic supports from the company – a school bus for transporting their children from the village to DAV school and free education for their children at the school. They are now paying heavy fees for their children’s education at DAV school.
  4. The women also shared that they have not got any health facilities from vedanta for the health problems they are facing and shared that the company’s hospital does not have good doctors or medicines whenever they go there.
  • Death of Dani Batra and 18th March incidence of violent crackdown
  1. According to the villagers of Chhatrapur, the strike of 18th March 2019 was organisedby the villagers of Rengopalli, Bandhaguda and Kotduar from 6.30 am and by about 9.30 am the strike concluded following some oral assurance to the people by one of the officials of Vedanta. The contract labourers from nearby villages, including Chhatrapur, were waiting at the gates to enter the factory for their work. At this point a vehicle and bus full of OISF personnel reportedly descended on the villagers and company’s labourers and lathi charged them mercilessly. In this chaos, Dani Batra, who also received severe beatings in the lathi charge, ran into a pond nearby to escape further beatings. But the OISF personnel allegedly dragged him out of the pond, and broke his hand and legs and crushed his private parts and threw him back into the pond leading to his death. His wife, Sayindri Batra, however shared that they are awaiting the post mortem report.
  2. As of yesterday, Sayindri shared that she has yet to receive the declared compensation of INR 25 lakhs which was promised to her in a written assurance on behalf of Mr H K Bhatia, HR Manager of Vedanta who met her on 18th March 2019 after Dani Batra’s death. The written assurance also talks of taking care of the education expenses of her three sons and providing a permanent job to her in the company.
  3. The reign of terror post the 18th March 2019 incident by Vedanta on its own workers has been such that for the last ten days the workers have been in fear of going back to work at the factory. They fear that the company would foist false charges on them for the burning and striking because the police would use CCTV care footage to track down all those who were present at the scene that day. The company has also washed its hands off any responsibility towards the emergency critical care of its workers injured in the late charge. The villagers also said that they have no idea about who torched the offices and other property of the company on that day leading to the unfortunate death of OISF personnel Sujeet Minz. This was also corroborated by the lawyers and other sources the team interacted with.
  4. Our interactions with the villagers of Chhatrapur revealed that there is an ongoing large-scale violation of the workers’ rights within the company. We learnt that workers from about 10-15 villages near around the company have been working in the factory for more than 18 years as contractual labourers. As a result of this there have been regular dharnas and lock downs by the workers and villagers affected by the activities of Vedanta in the area.
  • Intimidation, alleged false arrests and alleged false encounters
  1. The fact finding team was able to gather detailed evidence about the intimidation, alleged false arrests and alleged false encounters in Tadijola, Gorata, Dongamati, Kandel, Lakhpadar, Nisanguda, Ambadhuni, Nachinguda, Ningundi and Patanpadhar. In almost all these villages there have been instances of kidnapping, illegal detention in forests, being beaten up and interrogated and accused of being Maoist supporters by the police and CRPF.
  2. In the case of KuniSikaka, which was also covered by the media, she was picked by the police at midnight in 2017 from her marital home in Gorata by women police and was held in custody and forced to surrender as a Maoist. When her family went to demand her release, they were forced to sign on blank papers and their pictures were taken and released to the media as surrendered Maoists. Until this day, KuniSikaka, her husband JagliPusika and father in law DadiPusika do not know what is written on the blank sheets of paper that they were forced to sign on as a condition for release.
  3. In all the villages visited, there have been cases where the police/CRPF have illegally detained villagers in the forests and intimidated and interrogated them about whereabouts and other information about Maoists, which they do not have. They have also been cases of where innocent villagers have been accused of being Maoists and Maoist supporters, arbitrary cases slapped on them and arrested. The cases slapped on them have included false and random accusations such as murder, rape, domestic violence and so on. Furthermore, many of the falsely accused and illegally detained have not been informed about the cases that are being filed against them. Almost all the villagers who have faced intimidation, arrests, detention, kidnapping or murder are/have been active members of the NSS. The villagers feel the these are intimidation tactics employed by the police to silence them.
  4. In all the villages visited, there are many people who have been implicated and accused in various cases about which they have no information, whatsoever. The only time when they come to know about such cases having been framed against them is when they are picked up by the police, detained or interrogated. Spaces such as the forest, paths between villages are increasingly becoming unsafe for the villagers of Niyamgiri. Women particularly feel unsafe by the presence of the CRPF in the forests.
  5. The people who have been arrested and sent to prison have also testified facing custodial torture, including electric shocks and solitary confinement for more than 7 days at a time. Illegal ways in which arrests have happened include kidnapping, blindfolding, torturing, detention in forests before taking them to the station, not informing about the reasons for arrest or the charges they have been accused of. Not a single person had seen a copy of their FIR, chargesheet or any other case documents pertaining to them even after spending years in prison. Arrested people who were out of bail were not informed of the bail conditions as a result of which they were in a constant state of fear of imminent arrest, whenever they would go to the market or the forests.
  6. The fact finding team discovered that the only presence of government projects in these villages have been those that have attempted to rob the DongriaKondh of their identity and agency. For instance, the DKDA has for the past 30 years consistently influenced young minds to stay away from their cultural roots and identities and adopt new consumerist and mainstream ways of life. As a result, some of the villagers have consciously chosen to not send their children to school.
  • Experience with Media in Kalahandi District

The factfinding team  comprising of all women held a press conference in Bhawanipatna on 26 March in which about 12 media persons (all men) attended. About 15 media houses were invited to the press conference. The list of those mediamen who were present is attached at the end of this document.

The press conference began with an introduction to the factfinding team and purpose of the visit to the area. We had just began sharing our observations and findings, one of the journalists (Uma Shankar Kar from Indian Express) who had come in late aggressively asked about our network and enquired about who heads the same. He went on to giving judgmental statements such as ‘what kind of a network is this without a head/director’ when we said that it is a collective of like-minded women from a diverse set of backgrounds coming together around the issues of sexual violence and state repression. He was dismissive of our responses and did not allow us to even complete our responses to his multiple questions about our identity. And by then many of the other journalists present who were patiently listening to us had started nodding their heads in agreement with their senior colleague from the press. However, a few of them who knew about our network remained silent. We continued to share our findings despite an already vitiated atmosphere created by Mr Kar. One of our team members was recording the press conference in absolute openness as it was a public press conference and was not a close-door one. Suddenly, Mr. Kar started shouting at our team member and asked her how she dare record the proceedings and in particular his questions and his dismissive attitude to our responses. He stood up and very rudely began shouting at our member asking her to stop recording and delete whatever she had shot before. He was extremely loud and misbehaved with our colleague who was patiently trying to explain to him that it was a public meeting and he could not make such demands of her. He went on to demand that the video be deleted and asked one of his colleagues sitting near our member to take the phone from her and delete it saying that ‘she will not delete it. You take the phone from her and delete it.’ We were absolutely taken aback with this sudden uncalled for aggression by a senior media person like Mr Kar. When our team member who was shouted down upon protested and asked the person to stop shouting at her, another press person joined in and said they will not listen to us and that they will boycott the press conference if we continue to counter Mr Kar’s behavior. We wondered what kind of journalist ethics is a national and ‘reputed’ paper like IE promoting through such persons?On our part, still trying to understand the reasons for this aggression and charging of the entire team, we humbly said they were free to boycott the press conference and we will certainly put it in our report. Somehow, we calmly continued to present our findings with intermittent negative interventions from some of them.

A sizable section of the media people present in the conference was dismissive about our findings and said ‘it was one-sided and biased’ even though we shared that we have talked to diverse set of people viz., people in villages, lawyers, the SP of Kalahandi and the media. These select members did not come across as neutral party to the entire conversation, they were interrogating the team as state agents and were constantly using the narrative of the area being Maoists affected and that whatever was happening was part of the state’s efforts at development of the area. It seemed these select members of the press had already come with a judgement about the team, they were not interested to listen to us, our findings and were trying to create an atmosphere of intimidation. It also seemed that the team was being interrogated by them and we want to state here upfront that it is one thing to question the findings based on what was put on the table as a fact. But, on the contrary, they were asking the factfinding team questions that had no bearing on the findings or the issues that had emerged from the visit.

They asked us why the Maoists are creating so many problems and engaged in violence in the area not allowing development to take place. The team responded saying that they should raise this but that the press conference was not the right platform as the team is only sharing what it came to know from the people and their problems. The team also mentioned that the 100 or more people they had talked to in the villages had shared nothing about violations by Maoists and hence we could not present anything that wasn’t told to us. One of the findings had brought forth the fact that the gram sabha in Trilochanpur had passed a resolution against setting up the CRPF camp there on the farmland of four villagers. The team also shared that the entire process of occupying that land to set up the CRPF camp had not followed the due process of law. A section of the press present (mostly the same set of people who had been intimidating and interrogating us) just made a blanket statement that those people and gram sabhas are under Maoists influence and also that the gram sabhas held in 2013 in 12 villages were all an eyewash – and all those gram sabhas were done under the influence of Maoists. The team responded by saying that the Supreme Court has decided in Orrisa Mining Corp. Vs. Union of India that the decision of gram sabha is paramount. They responded (particularly Satyan Mahapatra of Prameya) saying that they do not consider that those gram sabhas were valid as they were held under the influence of the Maoists and that they do not accept the Supreme Court orders that came after the historic 12 gram sabhas that unanimously rejected mining in Niyamgiri. It seemed that this was more of their personal opinion as no corresponding information was shared based on which such conclusions had been made by some of the press who attended the meeting. The few members of the press who seemed to be unbiased and objective remained silent when the others were shouting but later on did say that the demands of the adivasi and other communities was legally valid and that they did know that it was a fact.

What happened in the press conference on 26 March in Bhawanipatna clearly indicates that a sizeable section of media in Bhawanipatna is working as a mouthpiece of the state that wants Vedanta to do its business there without any hassle and leaving no room for objective reflection and reporting. Quite a few media people appeared heavily compromised on their objectivity and a couple of others seemed to be ‘okay’ with the disruption and chose not to take a stand. This is absolutely in contradiction to the very existence of a critical pillar of democracy. A section of media in Bhawanipatna seems to be operating under the influence and directions of the government and Vedanta as during the entire conversation (animated and aggressive from their side), we did not find the seriousness, depth, analysis and agency among most who were present in the conference that is required for an objective and unbiased press. It appears to be run and influenced by upper caste Hindu men who are blindfolded by their own individual benefits. It appears to be run by biased individuals who prefer to ignore issues of human rights violations of Adivasi and other marginalised communities and do not want to engage in discussions about violations by the nexus of state and corporate.

There were a few media persons who appeared to be unbiased and tried to see the various perspectives and it was heartening to hear one of them saying that non-implementation of PESA Act since 1996 till date in the region is the main reason for conflict. We should mention that we place on record our appreciation for such media persons, although fewer in number, who are trying to retain the value of independence and objectivity

Therefore, with a lot of pain and anguish, we come to an understanding that an important pillar of democracy seems to be traded off in Kalahandi at the expense of hundreds and thousands of Adivasis and Dalits living in and around Lanjigarh and Niyamgiri by this collective conspiracy of state-corporate-media nexus.

This also leaves us all with the question of how free is the press?

  • Recommendations
  • The Governor of Odisha, as a custodian of the scheduled areas, should act upon the memorandum submitted to him by NSS with regard to the forced eviction of 4 families for building the CRPF camp at Trilochanpur.

 

  • Implement the Forest Rights Act and PESA in Niyamgiri in letter and spirit as re-affirmed in 2013 and 2016 Supreme Court verdicts

 

  • Immediately stop all plans of constructing or setting up of any further CRPF camps without the explicit and informed consent of the concerned Gram Sabhas.

 

  • Action to be taken against erring officials responsible for illegal detention, kidnapping, illegal arrests and false encounters of innocent villagers of Niyamgiri. An independent inquiry to be set up in consultation with NiyamgiriSurakhya Samiti

 

  • Adequately compensate the families and the villagers affected by State supported violence in consultation with the NiyamgiriSurakya Samiti

 

  • Ensure that the press/media in the district is free and fair.

Sd/- Fact Finding Team from WSS

For more information about WSS, see here: https://wssnet.org/

List of Media persons present at the Press Conference on 26 March

  • Uma Shankerkar, Indian Express
  • Satyan Mohapatra – Prameya
  • Rajkumar Singhdeo – OTV
  • AnjanRath – – Dharitri
  • Sanjiv Kumar Joshi – Dharitri
  • DebendraBisi – Sambad
  • Mahammed Aslam – News7
  • Mana Pradhan
  • ChittaranjanBisi – News World Odisha
  • Bijay Dwivedi – Samaja

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